January 28, 2021
Wales is one of the three countries in the world to feature a mythical creature as Dragon on its flag, and it is one of the most important objects in Welsh history.
The English word “dragon” and the Welsh “draig” are both derived from the ancient Greek word drakon, which basically means “large serpent”. This does not mean that there were no stories of dragons before the ancient Greeks, but that this particular word merely became common in many languages.
Generally Welsh dragon seems quite typical in its dragon-like appearance with four legs and wings, but in many cultures, what we call dragons were essentially large serpents, as iconography from ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt suggests.
One legend recalls Romano-British soldiers carrying the red dragon (Draco) to Rome on their banners in the fourth-century, but it could be even older than that.
It is considered that the Welsh kings of Aberffraw first adopted the dragon in the early fifth century in order to symbolise their power and authority after the Romans withdrew from Britain. Later, around the seventh century, it became known as the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, king of Gwynedd from 655 to 682.
Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae, written between 1120 and 1129, links the dragon with the Arthurian legends, including Uther Pendragon the father of Arthur whose name translates as Dragon Head. Geoffrey’s account also tells of the prophecy of Myrddin (or Merlin) of a long fight between a red dragon and a white dragon, symbolising the historical struggle between the Welsh (red dragon) and the English (white dragon).
Red Dragon however is only one of a number of dragon-like beasts to prowl their way through Welsh folklore.
Few legendary superheroes like Peredur, King Arthur and even more ancient Hu Gadarn (Hugh the Mighty’) are all credited with destruction of a water monster called the Afanc.
Although it is generally referred to as the Afanc singular, each story may refer to a different creature. They are of indeterminate appearance and inhabited more than one lake. One thing they had in common: they were enormously powerful. Sometimes described as taking the form of a crocodile, giant beaver or dwarf, it is also said to be a demonic creature. The Afanc was said to attack and devour anyone who entered its waters.
In the oldest story, the Afanc lurked in a now unidentified and possibly mythical lake called Llyn Lion, Its thrashing about in the water caused terrible floods which regularly drowned the country round about. Hi Gadarn employed the two gigantic oxen called the Ychen Bannog to drag out the fearsome monster, which he then killed. The strain of removing the Afanc caused one of the oxen to die, and the other wandered off, mournfully lowing for his fallen comrade. The bard Iolo Morganwg locates this adventure to the area around Llanddewi Brefi in Ceredigion.
In a later source, it is heroic King Arthur who drags the Afanc from its watery lair, in this case Llyn Barfog (Bearded Lake), near Aderdyfi.
It’s not quite known why the Llyn Barfog has the bearded epithet, but it’s thought it could either relate to the characteristics of the dreaded Afanc. Alternatively it’s said the lake may be known as bearded because of the fairly sizeable stretch of reed beds that border it. The lake is also thought to have been much larger in King Arthur’s day and is now presumed to be a shadow of its former self.
Llyn y Barfog or The Bearded One's Lake
The beast has also been associated with Llangorse Lake (Llyn Syfaddon) near Brecon and Llyn yr Afanc near Betws y Coed. It should be noted, however, that afanc is the word for ‘beaver’ in modern Welsh and the afanc may simply be named after this harmless furry critter, which is Wales for centuries.
It is believed this mystical beast still lies sleeping in the depths of a lake, and could sleep for well over a hundred years. Not many people would ever go to swim in those lakes. Once an Afanc was disturbed supposedly, its unfortunate victims would be lucky to escape with their lives.
The author Marie Trevelyan collected many folk stories from friends, neighbours, servants and travellers as well as from a number of more scholarly sources. In her 1909 book Folk-Lore and Folk Stories of Wales she relates an interesting encounter with another water monster, this time in Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid). She writes: “it was said Bala Lake was bottomless. Centuries ago an expert diver tried it, but was terribly frightened by his experience. He asserted that a dragon was coiled up at the bottom of the lake, and if he had not been very careful the creature would have swallowed him.”
Worm’s Head on the Gower Peninsula in Wales was thought to resemble a sleeping dragon.
Jutting dramatically into the sea at Rhossili, Pernhyn gwyr is an impressive headland known as Worm’s Head.
There are many legends in the north east of England relating to gigantic ‘worms’ which terrorised the local area before being slain by a hero. The Lambton Worm, Sockburn Worm and Worm of Linton are among the best known of these. The North East was raided and occupied by the Vikings for centuries during the Dark Ages and these legends may refer to heroes fighting the invaders, personified as monstrous Viking worm dragons.
The Durham historian Hutchinson believed the legend of the Sockburn worm, for example, referred to a Viking raider who plundered the Tees valley before being repulsed. The notion of the Sockburn worm itself was used by Lewis Carroll as the basis of his nonsense rhyme “Jabberwocky”.
Featured image: Statue of Welsh Dragon in Welsh Memorial Park Ieper (Ypres), photo © Llywelyn2000
Legends and Folklore of Wales. / R.S. Holland
Mysterious Wales / Chris Barber
Wales Before 1066. Prehistoric and Celtic Wales: facing the Romans, Saxons and the Vikings / Donald Gregory
December 30, 2023